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One of the many aspects of enjoying anime comes from having fun while you watch it. That’s not the only thing, though. For those who like challenges, or those who like a touch of gritty realism in their shows, watching anime that sends your brain into overdrive as it tries to make sense of what the anime is conveying to you is an enjoyment unrivaled by anime with other genres. It’s both a challenge and a satisfaction of watching something with great storyline and thoughts put into it, and while some of it might be extremely dark, the audience comes out of it finding something new and worth thinking about.
We’ve assembled ten titles of thought-provoking anime that might just piqued your interest if you haven’t tried them, yet! Below you might find several different genres—from dystopian society, comedic social criticism, psychologically dark, to philosophical mecha anime—see if there is one that might interest you to try and watch them!
10. No. 6
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: July 2011 – September 2011
Originally a light novel with the same title written by Asano Atsuko (whose other work, Battery, has been adapted into an anime and is currently airing), No. 6 is the name of a city surrounded by walls, safe from outside threat, an utopia where there is no poverty, conflicts, or any problems whatsoever. It is one of the six city-states in the world that emerged after the long and bloody war humanity had. The story focuses on Shion, a young boy who is an elite resident of No. 6 thanks to his academic brilliance, whose life is changed forever ever since he rescued a mysterious boy called Nezumi. Through their fated meetings, Shion learns the darker side of the city, including the truth and reality of the wastelands that lied behind the walls of No. 6, and the secrets held by the city-state itself.
Looking at Shion’s banishment from No. 6 and his initial ignorance, how he struggles in accepting a completely different values and morality that lives beyond the utopia that is No. 6, and Nezumi’s complicated, almost contradictory presence as they both unveiled the secrets behind the walls of No. 6, the audience was given a glimpse of how actual society works, what they gain and lose as a utopia was created. The overall concept and mystery it brought still provided you a great reflective session to your mind.
9. Gatchaman Crowds
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: July 2013 – September 2013
Set in the city of Tachikawa, Tokyo, Gatchaman Crowds follow the story of Ichinose Hajime, whose life had changed once she was given NOTE, which enabled her to transform into the legendary protector of Tachikawa: Gatchaman. As she and her friends fought to eliminate aliens that destroyed everything they touch, called MESS, and stop them from throwing the world into chaos, they also have to keep their presence a secret. A series putting superheroes on the spotlight, handled by Tatsunoko Production, full of bright, flashy colors and transformations sequences!
Sounds super fun? It is. Except unlike the other flashy superhero anime shows, Gatchaman Crowds zeroes in the very essential question in the end: what exactly makes one a hero? Should humans be given the power to take matters into their own hands outside of their own personal matters? What makes a society into a society? These are the kind of questions that would pop in your head when you watch Gatchaman Crowds. Despite its flashy, fun-looking packaging—beautiful artwork, interesting character designs, top-tier seiyuus such as Uchida Maaya and Miyano Mamoru in its line-up—Gatchaman Crowds’ best point lies in its thought-provoking storyline. If you’re in the mood of something flashy and yet requires brain work, this is a series for you to pick up!
- Episodes: 22
- Aired: October 2012 – March 2013
Arguably one of Gen Urobuchi’s best works, Psycho-Pass is both an action and psychological sci-fi anime that won Newtype’s 2013 Best Title award. Set in the 22nd century, the series told the story of a world where it was possible to quantify and examine one’s mental state for signs of criminal intent and ill-wills, known as Psycho-Pass. Tsunemori Akane, a young Inspector who naively wishes to uphold justice, gets paired with Enforcer Kougami Shinya. As the series progress, she sees the reality of how corrupt the justice system is, and struggles to perceive what justice actually is. It will send your mind reeling over the classic debate of life: What is right and what is wrong?
As other Gen Urobuchi’s works do to us, Psycho-Pass also delved into questioning the true nature of humanity. While, at the core, this series is really about revenge, the grey area of morality makes it hard for even us audience to root for either the protagonist or the antagonist. Is the system of justice, keeping the order in society by restricting them, really just? Or is it really better to regain humans’ free will, but in the process letting go of the utopian ideas for a peaceful community? Psycho-Pass brought the audience along as Akane journeyed through doubts and questions in the grey area of the concept of justice in her world.
7. Terra E… (Toward the Terra)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: April 2007 – September 2007
Adapted from a manga with the same title by Takemiya Keiko in 1977, Terra E… is an epic that was sadly over overlooked by many of anime viewers. In a future where humans live in colonized planets, controlled in every aspect of their lives by computers, after Earth is no longer habitable as it was too polluted and destructive, biological evolution had resulted in a new human race, people who could wield psionic abilities: Mu. Feared, hated, and exiled from the rest of humanity, and nearly extinct, the Mu only held one dream of going home to the beautiful, almost mystical blue planet: the Earth, or as its other name stated, Terra.
Terra E… is not simply about conflict and wars in space; it is about race and politics, exclusion and extinction, and relationships between humans and technologies. Through the growth of its two main characters—Jomy who belongs to the Mu, and Keith who belongs to humans—Terra E… weaved an entire epic spanning 20 or 30 years with an extensive number of cast, showing us the lives of two entire, separated races. While it is set in a futuristic, sci-fi world, the themes and emotions Terra E… brings to us hits dangerously close to our own reality—racism, political conspiracy, survival, ideological and religious belief. All of these topics, delved into with a focus on both the Mu’s and humans’ side, highlighting each side’s ignorance and blindness and yet also each side’s grief and losses. It is an epic that ended with a profound sense of satisfaction despite the pain and grief, giving viewers a sense of hope rarely found in such a dark, tragic genre of anime.
6. Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita (Humanity has Declined)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: July 2012 – September 2012
It isn’t only a dark, psychological series that could send your mind whirling over questions about the world. Don’t be fooled by the intimidating title, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita is, without a doubt, an extremely cute yet strange, hilarious comedy with nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has dwindled and the world is, now, dominated with the new ‘humanity’: fairies. Tiny, extremely adorable and permanently grinning ten-inches creatures who are surprisingly very intelligent, but also susceptible to what they perceive as trends, can’t make sweets, and reproduce by multiplying when they’re having fun.
Through the nameless protagonist—only referred to as Watashi—and her dealings with the fairies’ antics, resulting in hilarious conversations made of the fairies’ sometimes morbid questions and dry, deadpan comments from ‘Watashi’, the anime delivers satirical and cynical accounts of the our current, real humanity with its many social issues. With its hilarious exaggeration of inexplicable strange things like skinned, beheaded chickens trying to take over the world, this anime poked fun and forced us to think again about how our world and humanity works—from food industry, translation errors, manga and even doujinshi industry, bullying problems, politics, or even making a country. A completely different take on thought-provoking issues, a refreshing protagonist and comedy style, colorful and cute animations, and seiyuus such as Nakahara Mai, Arai Satomi and Sawashiro Miyuki taking part, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita is a perfect choice for a light watch that still provides exercise for your brain.
5. Eve no Jikan
- Episodes: Movie
- Aired: March 2010
The early ONA version of the same title compiled, and extended into a movie, Eve no Jikan is set in the future where androids have become a common everyday part of everyone’s lives, serving humans and taking over duties as they operate under the Three Laws of Robotics. In this world, Sakisaka Rikuo and his best friend, Masakazu Masaki, found a small café called Eve no Jikan with a peculiar rule: no discrimination to humans or androids. In a space where one can’t differentiate who is human and who is not, Rikuo and Masaki slowly learned different perspectives of both humans and androids, changing their own and how they treat androids.
The best part of the thought-provoking aspects Eve no Jikan gave its viewers is that the possibility of having androids incorporated into daily life is, perhaps, not such a farfetched future in our own society. With its unique directions and animation, Eve no Jikan tried to catch a glimpse of what implications and consequences were there in a society where the lines between human beings and androids are nearly invisible. Like Rikuo and Masaki, audience learns the ‘humane’ side of these androids, and it forced us onto a question: what, then, makes humans ‘human’? What makes us different from these non-human beings who looks like us? What makes us, for the lack of a better word, better? And if we are not so different after all, would it be so bad? Not only does Eve no Jikan offer a philosophical brain work-out, it also touches you emotionally as it told you the stories of the characters—from Rikuo and Sammy, his maid android, or two androids loving one another, or a human kid raised by an android, to Masaki and his helper robot friend.
4. Kara no Kyoukai (The Garden of Sinners)
- Episodes: 8 Movies
- Aired: December 2007, February 2008, May 2008, August 2008, December 2008, August 2009, February 2011
While Type-Moon is most widely known for its Fate series, this particular anime is one of their darker, more obscure project: Kara no Kyoukai was released as a movie series, but it is also part of what Type-Moon fans call the Nasu-verse. Kara no Kyoukai told the story of Ryougi Shiki, a young woman linked to a series of violent, mysterious deaths, which drew Kokutou Mikiya towards her. Shiki wields a supernatural ability to see and bring an end to everything with her “Mystic Eyes of Death Perception.” Between Shiki’s split personality, the dangerous supernatural forces, and the growing relationship between her and Mikiya, Shiki struggles to find her identity and sense of self.
Kara no Kyoukai is an extremely dark, mature anime, highlighting themes such as split personality, rape, drugs, murder and gore, and some of the philosophical concepts that, if you are a fan of Type-Moon, you would be familiar with. The relationship between Mikiya and Shiki is a very psychological one, especially with Shiki’s split personality. It’s thought-provoking in the way that you would question even your own stance if you were in the same shoes as the character. Kara no Kyoukai is a heavy, difficult series to watch, but also enjoyable.
3. Soukyuu no Fafner (Fafner in the Azure)
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: July 2004 – December 2004
In the far future, an alien being called Festum came upon Earth and began assimilating humans, taking away even humans’ ability to reproduce naturally. Japan was destroyed, and its survivors, cast off by the rest of humanity, embarked on a man-made island called Tatsumiyajima, where they hid from the whole world in peace for years while constructing the mecha who could fight Festum’s mind-reading abilities: Fafner. Written by Ubukata Tow, Soukyuu no Fafner is a series that’s still going strong even after 12 years; its sequel, Soukyuu no Fafner: EXODUS had just finished as last year ended, and the production team is still hinting that the series has not yet ended.
Ubukata Tow worked with a lot of existentialism concepts in Soukyuu no Fafner, working it with the growth and development of both the characters and the world-building. While the mecha and the action scenes are captivating, the real brilliance of Soukyuu no Fafner lies in its highly complicated, yet extremely touching story. The series constantly questions the meaning of existence and nothingness, and highlights the importance of choosing and having choices as what makes you a human being, and furthermore, also takes the consequences of those choices in shaping the world. It dealt with concepts such as collective conscience and individuality, grief and losses and keeping memories alive, and as its creators said, it depicted a story where humans desperately protected their way of living. Despite the many deaths and massacres, Soukyuu no Fafner is a story about being alive and ‘living’, and not only would it work your mind and brain overtime, it would also rip your heart into pieces.
2. Mardock Scramble
- Episodes: 3
- Aired: October 2010, September 2011, September 2012
Another sci-fi series from the hands of Ubukata Tow, Mardock Scramble is a dark, psychological anime filled with symbolism from the very beginning to the end. In the city of Mardock, a former teen prostitute called Rune Balot attempted to look up one of her previous clients, Shell, which later dragged her into complicated stories and resulting in her almost getting blown up in a car. She is then saved by a scientist who reassembled her entire body using reinforced synthetic fiber, and with the help of Oefcoque, and artificial intelligence in the form of a mouse who could turn into any weapons, clothes or tools, Rune Balot begins to follow her desire for revenge towards Shell.
Not only does Mardock Scramble deal with very mature themes requiring its audience to keep an open mind such as rape, sexuality, and gore, it also brings interesting questions for the audience to digest through: what does it mean to be alive? Through Rune Balot, the audience was given a story of someone who gets to be reborn, but also the question of whether or not it was a good thing. The psychological aspects of the series were also highlighted through various symbolis—Rune Balot’s dream, the designs of her various enemies, and the presence of Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the second movie. All of this is wrapped in GoHands’ beautiful animation, and great quality acting from seiyuus such as Nakai Kazuya, Hayashibara Megumi, and Namikawa Daisuke. For those who loves psychological anime with well-done world-building, this movie series is a must-watch.
1. Shin Sekai Yori
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: September 2010 – March 2011
Set in the dystopian society of Japan where, after an outbreak of violence caused by the 0.1% of the population were unable to control their newfound psychokinetic ability, Shin Sekai Yori told the story of a society bound with numerous rules that kept their fragile society peaceful. Through the eyes of children who were raised and grew up in such society, Shin Sekai Yori laid down to us an unusual coming-of-age story of Watanabe Saki and her friends: Asahina Satoru, Aonuma Shun, Itou Mamoru, and Akizuki Maria, following them as they awaken to their powers, grew up, faced losses and learned of their own society as well as their ignorance, and how their future unfolded.
Shin Sekai Yori is a horror anime. It is also a mystery, fantasy, philosophical anime with a touch of Japanese mythology. But ultimately, it offered a drama of how humanity desperately tried to cling into peace, even one that was a result of a vile, morally questionable system. It is extremely hard to recommend Shin Sekai Yori without spoiling any of its mysteries. It’s an extremely dark series that makes you question the very nature of human beings and how far human beings could go for what they desire, as well as how frightening it really is. What makes children as children, and at which point they grew into adults, along with what they lose as they become adults are parts of what Shin Sekai Yori highlights, and while it is thought-provoking, it is also terrifying for the audience to watch. While the anime’s artwork is perhaps not everyone’s cup of coffee and its serious, dark tone that it plays with is painful to get through, Shin Sekai Yori is a very unusual, peculiar anime that is extremely intriguing and very gripping.
As you’ve read through, you’ve probably realized that while it’s often associated with dark, psychological genre, thought-provoking themes could be showcased in various kind of anime. There is always something for everyone, after all. Of course, there are several older anime that would have made it into the list if it were longer: Serial Experiments Lain, for example, or slice of life anime such as Kino no Tabi. For those who like intriguing, if rather abstract anime, Haibane Renmei might also be a great choice.
Have more suggestions, or your own comments if you’re watched any of these series? Do tell us in the comments!